Cost of the Criminal Justice System Puts Poor in Perpetual Cycle

By: Chris Stover Email
By: Chris Stover Email

May 16, 2013

Court costs can become steep and out-of-hand very quickly, especially for those who don’t have much money to begin with.

Many people are finding themselves in a constant spiral of having to pay – without the ability to pay. And those who see this spiral most are the public defenders and court-appointed attorney.

“Being the lowest-paid with the fewest resources really adds up to an injustice,” said Steven Rosenfield, a Charlottesville criminal defense attorney.

It’s not that court-appointed attorneys can’t do the job; it’s that they’re barely paid to do the job. Rosenfield said Virginia’s court-appointed attorneys are among the lowest paid in the country.

Compensation for court-appointed counsel is mandated by Virginia code, and therefore the General Assembly. For all the work an attorney puts into a client’s misdemeanor charge in a state circuit court, he or she gets paid $158.

For a Class III or Class IV felony in circuit court, the attorney will be compensated $445 for all the work.

“By and large, the system is broken and the criminal indigent defendants get what is paid for,” Rosenfield said. “And that is a pretty inadequate trial counsel.”

Indigent defendants, those who qualify for court-appointed counsel based on their income, can’t benefit from the situation.

“You have this spiral of poor people who are caught up in the criminal justice system,” Rosenfield said. “They are saddled with an enormous debt that they can't conceivably pay. Otherwise, you would have hired a lawyer to begin with.”

Those who can’t pay court costs within 30 days for either a misdemeanor or a felony get their driver’s licenses revoked.

“We've heard for years that there was a real problem,” said Carolyn Kalantari, an attorney with Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center.

Kalantari recently began working with clients caught up in not having a license and, therefore, not being able to drive to work to pay the bills.

“What's interesting is we're able to start to see the patterns and the trends, and we're able to reach out to members of the community and build relationships that help us try to solve some of the problems,” Kalantari said.

In 2012 alone, the Department of Motor Vehicles in Virginia revoked 401,504 licenses from people for failure to pay court costs on time. The number represents license suspensions, and some people may have more than one suspension in multiple jurisdictions. But overall, the 2012 numbers represent more than 37 percent of all revoked licenses.

“It creates a perpetual cycle because once their driver's license is suspended, they can't work and they can't pay their fines and court costs,” said Martin Kumer, the deputy superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. “The cycle seems to never end.”

Kumer is spearheading a program at the jail for inmates based off an idea Albemarle County sheriff Chip Harding saw on the Eastern Shore. Inmates are able to perform community service for government or nonprofit agencies and receive credit to cover their court costs.

Essentially, inmates can pay off their fines by the time they’re released from the jail.

“They have nothing hanging over their head,” Kumer said. “They can move on with their life. It's one less barrier to them to become a productive member of society.”

Since the program’s inception in September 2012, inmates logged more than 6,500 hours. At the minimum wage credit of $7.25 an hour, that results in more than $47,000 going toward court costs.

Even local prosecutors support the plan.

“We're prosecutors. We don't make the laws. We're charged with enforcing them,” Charlottesville assistant commonwealth’s attorney Joe Platania said. “And we will do that. But I think we try to take in Charlottesville a very common-sense approach.”

Platania joined forces with Kalantari this week to host an information session for local lawyers to teach them about how they can help end the spiral so many indigent defendants find themselves in.

“If they get a valid driver's license, it really opens up a whole bunch of opportunities for them, and we don't have to see them in court anymore,” Platania said.

There is still much work to do, but many say they can only work within the realm that the General Assembly mandates.

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